Designated as one of the 34 biodiversity hotspots in the world, Sri Lanka’s wealth of natural resources has also attracted the attention of unscrupulous elements who attempt to rob the country in many ways. Birds’ nests, endemic water plants, butterfly cocoons, undersize shipments of chank are among the recent spoils nabbed by the vigilant eyes of the Customs’ Biodiversity Protection Unit.
Set up in 1993 as a small task force, the Biodiversity Protection Unit (BPU) of the Sri Lanka Customs has been doing a commendable job in combating environmental crime with its limited resources. “This is the first Biodiversity Protection Unit of a customs in the world,” said its head, Samantha Gunasekara. The concept of establishing a special unit to handle biodiversity-related crime was born a long time ago, he says, explaining how after much effort, he started the unit in 1993. A series of eye-opening raids soon highlighted the scale of environmental crimes that threatened Sri Lanka’s valued biodiversity.
In their most recent raid, BPU officials netted in nests of the Edible-nest Swiflet. Soup made of these nests is a delicacy in East Asian countries, so exporting the nests has become a lucrative business for many. The little bird makes its tiny nest by mixing its saliva with moss and other materials. It takes hundreds of nests to make up one kg. A kg of the nests would fetch about Rs.200,000, a BPU official explained.
A shipment of chank that contained more than 75% undersized shells was also detected by the BPU recently. This is not the first such chank shipment to have passed the other hurdles, but being stopped by the BPU. Chank is a slow breeding sea mollusc so the size of shells allowed for export is regulated to ensure sustainability. The catch should be validated by Fisheries Inspectors at the fishing sites, but under-sized chank shipments continue to slip through the net. This particular shipment was headed for Bangladesh, where there is a high demand for making traditional Chank Bengal.
Cocoons of rare butterflies have also been often detected by the BPU. On one occasion, the Biodiversity Protection Unit raided an illegal butterfly garden breeding rare butterflies for export. Butterflies are easy to export during the larvae stage due to the ease with which they can be concealed.
If exports need constant surveillance, so too do imports for various invasive species could be easily be brought into the country, posing a grave threat to our biodiversity. A case in point was the shipments of bumble-bees that had been sent to the country.
The main international treaty aimed at stopping the over-exploitation of the endangered animals through trans-boundary trade is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The Fauna & Flora Protection Ordinance of Sri Lanka also affords protection to our threatened species.
The first step to stop an environmental crime is to detect it, but it is no easy task to distinguish rare animals or plants from the common ones when the difference could as insignificant as just a few stripes. Officers who investigate the samples must thus have an expert knowledge of rare species as well as a thorough knowledge of the Multilateral Agreements so as to prevent smugglers squeezing through the loopholes. Modern technology is also being used in smuggling.
“Yes, it is not an easy task,” says Samantha recalling the time when the BPU stopped a shipment of the rare kekatiya plant variety that is used in the ornamental fish industry. The removal of the plant from the ecosystem is destructive to the species associated to it, so collection is banned. But the smuggler, a powerful businessman tried to stop the investigation. In the face of many threats, a court battle ensued with the final outcome in favour of Samantha.
The Biodiversity Protection Unit has won several environmental awards, including the Presidential Environment Award in 2005 to Samantha for his contribution to protecting biodiversity through the BPU.
But awards apart, the BPU’s limited resources have been a major stumbling block to its continued action. “The Biodiversity Protection Unit has done a really good job initially, but it needs to be given enough resources and new officers to sustain its valuable service,” commented environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardane.
Samantha was made head of the Biodiversity Protection Unit, but the need of the hour is to train new officers to take the helm after him.
Hampering detection raids is the fact that the BPU still does not have its own vehicle.
With smugglers resorting to more ingenious methods of smuggling and environmental crimes getting high-tech, it is time to modernize this unit to fight the ever-increasing incidence of such crimes at the port.